To truly celebrate diversity in the NHS, it is crucial to see beyond stereotypes, writes Hilary Thomas

I expect we all have times when we discover someone only to find that he or she is the latest big news. That happened to me with Hari Kunzru recently.

I was relaxing in a cafe on holiday in northern Californiaand, captivated by his far-fetched story in the New Yorker about the fictional granddaughter of Nelson Mandela, I bought a Kunzru novel in the bookshop next door.

On my return toEngland,I found his name was everywhere. Discussing his latest novel on the radio, he was asked why he had written a white man’s story. He pointed out that having written two successful books about his Asian roots, it was time to be a novelist in the truest sense and not be constrained by the pigeonhole in which he has been posted.

This has resonated with me over recent weeks and provided a different perspective on the importance of equality and diversity. When you look at somebody, their colour, gender, dress, bodyshape, stature, posture - the list is endless - all inform some preconceived idea that is itself based on a set of assumptions and, no doubt, prejudices. The name Hari Kunzru conjures a certain image. Indeed, reading him in the New Yorker, I had assumed he would be American, not British.

Hitting home

My organisation delivers services at a couple of hundred sites across the country to very diverse people. Usually the workforce reflects the population, although carers are predominantly female. As I work my way around the country and try to understand - for want of a better mixed metaphor - what makes different parts of the jigsaw tick, it has become clear that familiarity allays fear and fosters tolerance.

Where people are hidebound by prejudice, this usually reflects inexperience. I have heard claims about the work ethic of different minorities - generalisations I can usually dispel with examples from our own workforce. They are usually based on fleeting experience. I have also uncovered cliques of staff across health and social care who need to be taken out of their comfort zone and have their entrenched views challenged by example.

But what is the most effective way to challenge the status quo? In the South East, the variation is patchy and seems to reflect deprivation; here the workforce and population may not be aligned. In theWest Midlands,where we deliver a diagnostics programme over a wide geographic area, the workforce and population vary hugely, from urban to rural, large metropolis to small town, affluent to deprived areas. To compound the matter further, we have to recruit from overseas to ensure we do not poach staff from shortage specialties.

In the West Midlands, we are attempting to enhance our cultural competence as an employer and a service provider. In doing so, we have tried to look beyond the conventional limits of cultural awareness training.

We have established aninternational colleague network group to provide friendship and support beyond the initial induction period when staff may be feeling isolated. The group also helps people to mix with a range of cultures and take part in activities that promote their own cultural identity - this might include bringing in food, dressing in traditional costumes and giving talks to colleagues.

We have also set up a group of diversity champions who may be more approachable on an informal basis than those viewed as management representatives. People have been allocated a mentor and ongoing language support where necessary.

We also plan to use internal communications to profile staff to set out their likes and dislikes and the differences they have found working in theUK,and to produce a multi-faith calendar with profiles of major festivals.

The medic in me wants to turn this into a randomised controlled trial to establish what adds value and what does not, but that clearly is not possible or appropriate. Perhaps where I see teams that have not had this approach or investment, I will be able to make my own, non-randomised comparisons.